In a village in the Yucatán Peninsula, according to Mayan lore, there once lived two beautiful sisters named Xkeban and Utz-colel. Even though Xkeban had a kind heart and did many good deeds, she was seen as a sinner by the villagers for her many affairs with men. Utz-colel was cold of heart and despised those in need, yet she was considered the more virtuous of the two by those very same villagers.
When Xkeban goes missing one day, the villagers immediately think she was again out and about flirting with men. But when a sweet scent starts to emanate from her house, they discover her body surrounded by flowers and animals. Utz-colel thought she would smell better when she died, but her body left a horrible stench. The bodies of both sisters transformed into different flowers. Utz-colel wanted to turn into a woman once again to taste the love that had been denied her. Instead, she turned into an evil being, the Xtabay, who appeared at night in her white dress to seduce men under a ceiba tree, and then, once the act was done, transform into a poisonous snake and devour them.
In her fifth feature film, Tragic Jungle (Selva trágica), currently streaming on Netflix, Mexican director Yulene Olaizola uses portions of Antonio Mediz Bolio’s ten-part prose poem, La tierra del faisán y el venado, dedicated to the Xtabay, as a springboard for her tale about greed, lust, madness, and borders. It may echo Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and even Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, in its portrayal of the jungle as a place where men lose their wits. But Tragic Jungle defies any easy categorization.
People die in the film, but you are never shocked by their deaths. For Olaizola, violence is as much a part of the jungle’s ecosystem as the howls of the monkeys and the chirps and other sounds that emanate from its interior. Death is unavoidable; the jungle merely shrugs at it. “I pity you for not understanding the mysteries of the jungle,” a Mayan says at the beginning in a voice-over, a device Olaizola utilizes throughout, almost as a commentary track on a DVD, the voice at times mocking the men’s own arrogance in thinking they can control that which cannot be controlled.
Shot on location in Quintana Roo, Tragic Jungle takes place in Río Hondo, on the border between Mexico and British Honduras (later Belize) in the 1920s. The film opens, almost documentary-style, on a group of Mexican men, some of them indigenous, climbing and hacking away at rubber trees, leaving diagonal lines that zigzag downwards, from which flows the sap that will later be turned into chewing gum. The sound of the machetes hacking away is brutal, overpowering. Olaizola then cuts to a trio of Black fugitives: Agnes (first-time Belizean actress Indira Rubie Andrewin), her sister Florence (Shantai Obispo) and their guide. They are being chased by the White British cacique who was going to marry Agnes, and his two Black henchmen (and, yes, race plays a significant albeit subtle role in defining the different racial dynamics taking place on this border). They are shot by the cacique once they cross the river into Mexico.
Wounded and unconscious, she is “rescued” by the Mexican men. Language becomes an issue once she wakes up, since they can’t speak English and Agnes can’t speak Spanish. Ausencio, the foreman (Gilberto Barraza), orders his men to leave her alone. Easier said than done, since he is the first to succumb to temptation and rapes her. It is not long before we realize that her wound has mysteriously healed. She begins to wait at the base of the ceiba tree for the men, who will then be struck by death after they make love to her. Agnes’s transformation into what the film suggests may be the Xtabay is subtle, Andrewin using her gaze, her body language, her silences, and even her smiles, to hint at her true nature. And yet, these deaths are at first not that horrific; there’s even one that may actually have nothing to do with Agnes. Violence in the traditional sense—a shoot-out, for example—doesn’t happen until near the end, when they decide to cross the border into British Honduras to sell their gum to the highest bidder, their boss be damned.
The film has a distinctive dreamlike quality to it, accentuated by Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography, former Santa Sabina guitarist Alejandro Otaola’s eerie score, full of ominous and at times John Carpenter-like electronic beats, and its languid editing. The film is almost observational, as if Oggioni’s camera was seeing the world from the jungle’s perspective, its monochromatic tones remarked upon by one of the characters early on: “Here, everything is of the same color.” This may not work for those who expect some degree of tension, of horror, of even empathy towards these characters, given the story’s mythological background and its own matter-of-fact title. But that’s exactly the point: the jungle doesn’t care who you are, what your social status is, or how much you earn. It will eat you alive (alas, humans have proven to be far deadlier than the world’s many jungles, given the amount of deforestation still taking place).
Other filmmakers would have built a sense of dread, some tension, around this story and backdrop. But that is clearly not what Olaizola is after. Although she addresses the exploitation of labor and natural resources and even the fluidity of borders in her script (co-written with Rubén Imaz), those issues take a backseat to atmosphere and mood, to the power of the elements, natural and supernatural. And to the overwhelming sense, given who makes it out alive in the end, that change is coming to this region.